Dominance of single religion challenged
Can children pray to only one God at school? Six former Model C schools who recite Christian prayers in assembly, pray before sports matches or describe themselves as having a predominantly “Christian ethos”, will now have to defend their right to follow a single religion in court.
The case, to be heard by the Johannesburg High Court, will have implications for any state school which promotes one religion in dress code, prayers or readings, even if the religion reflects the belief system of the majority.
OGOD, the Organisasie Vir Godsdienste Onderrig en Demokrasie, in their heads of arguments, filed last week, argue that the constitution and the National School Religion Policy do not allow for a single religion to be dominant at a public institution.
On its website, OGOD, an NGO, explains that it exists to “eradicate religious indoctrination through public schools, identify and expose magical thinking and to promote a democratic, secular and human rights based South African society.”
The schools cited are Randhart, Baanbreker and Garsfontein primary schools and Linden High School – situated in Gauteng – and two Oudtshoorn schools, Oudtshoorn High School and Lagenhoven Gymnasium.
The schools are represented by governing body union Federation of Governing Bodies for SA Schools, (Fedsas), which argues that the Schools Act states: “School governing bodies are required to determine the nature and content of and religious observances for teachers and pupils . . . It may also determine that a policy of no religious observances be followed.”
In 2008, OGOD founder Hans Pietersen discovered that his children were being exposed to Christian thinking, prayers and songs at the school they attended.
He made newspaper headlines in 2009 when he pointed out that a focus on a singular religion at school went against the constitutional rights of diversity and equality.
In 2014, after Pietersen found pro bono lawyers, he filed an affidavit to interdict the six schools from advertising themselves as Christian, singing only Christian school songs or having logos that refer to a creator or single deity or, as one school did, display bible verses on a classroom wall.
He has taken issue with voluntary school break-time Christian society meetings.
The schools argue that Section 15 of the constitution allows for expression of religion in the public sphere as long as it is voluntary.
They say no child is forced to pray at sports matches or attend religious assemblies, and deny students are bullied because they have other beliefs. The schools, which initially opposed the matter last year, are required to file more detailed papers by February, with the matter likely to be heard late next year.
The schools also argue that the National Religion Policy should not have been drawn up by the education minister as she cannot understand the local and religious nature of each school and community.
The education and justice ministers, cited as respondents in the case, have said they will not oppose the matter and will abide by the court’s decision.
The Department of Education has, in court papers, however indicated that it will defend its National Religion Policy as being in line with the constitution.
The departments say religious expression is allowed at schools, but cannot be exclusionary or only reflect majority views.
NGO Cause for Justice, an amicus of the court in the matter, argues: “Each school is a separate legal entity governed on democratic principles, and may determine their own character, identity or ethos.”
“There is nothing in our constitution, Schools Act or the National Policy on Religion and Education that precludes a school from having a religious character, or any other ideological identity for that matter.”
It warned that if Pietersen was successful, “our religious rights could be swept away”.